Not Having a Blast in Appalachia

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image by Mark Todd /

Dear Ned,

Like almost everyone else here in Appalachia, I live near a big ole mountaintop removal site. And I’ve got reasons to suspect that the coal companies might be violating a lot of worker safety regulations or environmental permits. I was wondering what you know about getting in close to take a peek at what’s going on?


Well, Samwise,I remember back in 1811 when us stockingers used to take pride in our work. And heck, were we ever mad when we found out people were using newfangled mechanized knitting frames to make really crappy versions of the stockings we made so carefully. And if I were a mineworker today, I’d feel the same.

From what I hear, companies have laid off almost everybody and replaced ’em with explosives. And even still, lots of miners are hurt and killed every year. So my hat is off to you, wanting to make sure these sites are following proper precautions. I happen to have a pamphlet called “Exploring Surface Mines” sitting in front of me. Let me give you a couple of highlights.

“Rule #1 is never go alone, and always make sure someone off the mine site knows where you are and when to expect you back. Make sure that person can be reached by phone by you, the police, or the hospital.

“Avoid the tops and the bottoms of highwalls. These artificial cliffs are constantly being eroded by weather, blasting, and truck traffic. Large chunks fall off regularly!

“Avoid the top, bottom, and middle of any steep slope [that is] made of uncompacted dirt, rubble, and boulders and has no plants anchoring the surface. Landslides are a frequent occurrence on mine sites, especially–but not only–after wet weather.

“Avoid drainages. Flash floods can occur because all the moisture-absorbing plants and soil have been scraped off the site. Entire towns have been wiped off the map due to mining activities.

“Steep spoil slopes, valley fills, rock, and debris piles that have not been compacted may slip, slide, or collapse when you walk on them.

“Slash piles often border a site, put there when bulldozers came in and pushed all the trees and topsoil out to the edge before mining. These treacherous piles of snake habitat should be traversed with care. They will be in various stages of rot and may not hold your weight.

“Explosions! Large amounts of explosives are used daily on active mine sites. Mobile drilling machines drill holes in the ground in an area that the miners want to remove. The holes are filled with a mixture of ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel (called ANFO), then detonators are wired up to all the holes and the holes are filled in. When the proper time arrives, [blasting crews] push a button on their control box and the explosion occurs.

“Although siren warnings are required, they may not actually be sounded–or may not be loud enough for you to hear. . . . The safest way to learn where and when blasting is going to occur on a mine site is to listen in on the blast crew’s radio conversations.

“Mines generally blast at about the same time in the late afternoon, for reasons of safety and workflow. Do not bet your life on this general rule!

“If you run across a series of open circular holes many feet deep but less than a foot wide, you have found blasting holes. If they are filled and have wires hooked up . . . get out fast!

“If you hear a siren you should find a solid object (machine, tree, hill, ditch, etc.) to put between yourself and the blast zone. . . . After the blast is over you should still wait awhile behind your shelter to avoid getting hit by flyrock.”

And this is only a partial list of the dangers at mine sites! I’ll just skim the rest of the pamphlet and give you some highlights:

Prepare by staring at maps, Google Earth, whatever you can get your hands on. Advice from folks who have been in the area is a great idea. Find out what the weather will be. Good boots, long sleeves, long pants. Plenty of water.

Figure out how to get dropped off, or where to leave a car. Make sure that whoever is going to pick you up has a good alarm clock. You want to explore the site from every angle, depending on what you’re scouting for. Don’t be afraid to take multiple trips.

Nighttime is often best. Go slow. Don’t get tunnel vision: Look around you. Take a flashlight, but avoid using it. Don’t use a camera flash. Active coal sites usually run 24/7. They have security. Usually, one guard will be at the entrance and one or two might be driving around. Most workers won’t get out of their vehicles, except for the blasting crew.

Finally, mine site workers often use walkie-talkies. Figure out what channels they use. Pay attention to blast crew and supervisor channels. The latter are important because that might be where you hear you’ve been spotted.

Whew!What a lot of information–and that’s just the start. But you can scout surface mine sites to see if the companies are breaking laws, and you can scout sites to better plan your own civil disobedience, banner hangs, or more, er, direct forms of earth-saving resistance! So good luck!

“Dear Ned Ludd” is a pseudonymous column published since the early ’80s in Earth First! Journal, the voice of the radical environmental movement. This column is excerpted from the September-October 2009 issue.

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